Microsoft's .NET initiative heats up the battle

Browser-based applications, whether on wired or wireless devices, are the future. Microsoft's new .NET (pronounced "dot net") strategy revolves around the browser and is an attempt to get the IT community behind Microsoft's technology to build platform-neutral applications. (Oracle, Sun Microsystems, IBM, and others have already put forth their own visions for how to build such an infrastructure and application-delivery methods.) I like this direction, and my personal experiences are emphasizing how much I need this technology now.

Wired
Preparing for a recent trip to London, I decided to leave my laptop at home. London has many cyber cafés, where you can access the Internet. So, after locating a café and firing up Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), I used Outlook Web Access (OWA) to access my company's Microsoft Exchange Server through the Web. After entering three screens' worth of profile and password information, I was impressed to see my email, calendar, and Inbox folders ready to use.

Getting used to the differences between the Web-based Outlook and the Win32 version takes awhile. OWA offers almost no integration with your contact file and therefore can't resolve any email address aliases that the file stores. And OWA lets you see only your Inbox folders. So if you're an email folder junkie like I am, you've got some adjusting to do. In many respects, Hotmail, Microsoft's other browser-based email system, is easier to use than the current version of OWA. But overall, OWA is very usable. I'm looking forward to the new version of OWA for Exchange 2000 Server, which includes significant improvements over the current version.

The day after my first experience, I went to a different cyber café on the other side of London and started emailing right where I had left off the day before. Having your desktop appear on any browser-based computer in the world gives you a lot of flexibility and is addictive. Not having to mess with any client-side software is also appealing.

Although much of browser-based software's functionality isn't up to Win32 software's standards, I can see the day when we'll be using nothing but browser-based software on our clients. Once a majority of people can use browser-based universal messaging (i.e., integrated email, fax, and voice), then other applications are bound to follow.

Back at home, I have DSL from Qwest. I get unlimited access at speeds of 640Kbps for a flat fee of $29.95 per month. Having full-time broadband access at home has made my Web experience quite pleasant. Streaming video is smooth, and Web-based applications are very usable at that speed. While I'm working from home, OWA on DSL does quite well.

Wireless
I travel frequently, so although I like OWA, I'm looking for a good wireless Exchange solution. So far, I've found a couple of wireless solutions worth mentioning. First, Research in Motion makes the BlackBerry Exchange Server add-on, which supports its BlackBerry wireless email devices. These devices allow full access to Exchange Server's email, calendar, to-do list, and so on. Each device comes with a small keyboard that supports thumb-typing for quick responses. I've heard from several people that the BlackBerry is very good.

The second solution I'm hearing about is from Wireless Knowledge, a joint venture between Microsoft and QUALCOMM. Wireless Knowledge's Exchange Server add-on is Workstyle Server, which supports any wireless device that contains an embedded Web browser. Here's how this solution works. A wireless device contacts the Workstyle Server through a wireless VPN. Workstyle Server automatically senses the type of device and uses Exchange's security to authenticate the user. Workstyle Server accesses the Exchange store (i.e., mailbox or calendar) for that user and sends the Outlook-like information formatted for that specific device. Whether you use a Pocket PC, PalmPilot, mobile phone, or PC, you'll get realtime access to your Exchange data, formatted and optimized for the device you're using at that moment. Workstyle Server also supports Domino and many sales force automation applications.

I like where all this activity is headed. Naturally, we'll have huge technological challenges to overcome—the same ones we've battled for decades, including security, scalability, reliability, administration, and application availability. The flexibility of being able to work from anywhere, anytime in a servercentric environment is appealing. Whether you decide to host your own applications or outsource them to an application service provider (ASP), the winners in the battle for the browser-based infrastructure will play a key role in your organization's computing future. And with .NET, Microsoft has decided to jump into the fray with guns blazing.